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Jewish World Review July 6, 2001 / 15 Tamuz 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Bush foreign policy reverts to tradition -- PRESIDENT BUSH is proving once again that there is a mainline U.S. foreign policy that new administrations find it hard to stray from for long.

Bill Clinton initially tried to avoid personal involvement in foreign affairs while pursuing confrontational policies with Japan on trade and China on human rights, only to reverse course. Now Bush also is changing his tune.

The president is facing the reality that in the post-Cold War era, overriding U.S. interests in world stability, expanding trade and controlling "rogue" powers demand cooperation with allies and negotiation with potential adversaries.

Trying to chart any major new course -- "unilateralism," for instance -- invites foreign and domestic criticism. Americans expect their nation to lead the world, which entails winning the respect of foreign leaders. Polls indicate that early foreign criticism of Bush has impaired his standing at home. Therefore, he is veering back toward a consensus foreign policy.

He indicated as a candidate that he would get U.S. troops out of the Balkans as fast as possible, for instance. But a few months ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Europe, "We went in together, and we'll come out together."

Shortly after assuming office, Bush broke off missile and nuclear negotiations that Clinton had started with North Korea. But he resumed them when it appeared that France would step into the void.

The president has not reversed himself on renouncing the Kyoto agreement on climate change. In fact, he stoutly defended the decision during his European trip last month.

Nevertheless, he went out of his way to emphasize that he takes global warming seriously and wants to do something about it - exactly what is not certain -- in cooperation with other countries.

Also on his European trip, he adamantly rejected the notion, fostered earlier by some of his subordinates, that he was pursuing a "unilateralist" foreign policy.

Bush does seem determined to pursue national missile defense and to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, regardless of foreign opposition; but he might not be able to pull off that move because of Democratic opposition in Congress.

In addition, regarding Russia, the Middle East and China, Bush's policies are not far from the general line followed by his father or Clinton.

He is even repeating their unfortunate tendency to personalize policy, as in his gushy handling of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After a two-hour meeting in Slovenia, Bush declared: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.... I was able to get a sense of his soul."

As critics have pointed out, Putin was a career KGB agent -- he was "trained to lie," one scholar told The New York Times -- and he is cracking down on the media and tolerating mass killing in Chechnya.

It could be argued that by praising Putin lavishly and imputing to him a desire to be "part of the West," Bush was trying to nudge Russia's leader into a cooperative stance on missile defense and NATO expansion.

Moreover, Bush told Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan that when he said he trusted Putin, he implicitly meant -- to borrow Ronald Reagan's famous phrase -- "trust, but verify."

Still, he didn't say or imply that in Slovenia. He sounded credulous, much as Clinton did when he said that Communist China was America's "strategic partner."

Bush has stiffened U.S. rhetoric on China and labeled it a "strategic competitor," but he has yet to deviate substantively from the Clinton policy on what counts most -- trade, technology transfers and Taiwan.

On the Middle East, Bush could not possibly have followed Clinton, who was -- in Clinton's own words -- "a colossal failure," because Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected a fair peace deal with Israel. Bush intended to keep his administration out of peace activism in this region, at least until Israel and the Palestinians reached a new power equilibrium and were ready to talk again.

The president has made it unmistakable that his administration sympathizes with Israel, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but not with Arafat. At the same time, though, he's been unable to avoid the traditional U.S. role of intermediary.

The reason is that conditions there are too dangerous for America to stay out. The potential exists for uncontrolled violence and possibly a loss of our prestige in the region, especially among the Arabs.

Some foreign policy experts I've spoken to think -- or hope -- that Bush is just posing as a traditionalist to mollify critics. These experts believe Bush is secretly a unilateralist bent on pursuing new, independent U.S. policies and making other countries follow suit. That might be the case, but I doubt he can pull it off for long.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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